Of Twitterati and WikiGnomes

Canadian Science Writers' AssociationEnvironment Canada’s Dr. Alex Bielak writes about a workshop at the Canadian Science Writers’ Association annual conference called “Social media, privacy issues and other public institution challenges in the digital age.”

In the splendidly appropriate setting of the Ottawa-based Canada Science and Technology Museum a large number of delegates turned up for the first day of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association’s (CSWA) annual conference.

The first plenary panel was on “Social media, privacy issues and other public institution challenges in the digital age” and several speakers showcased the innovative approaches they are taking in promoting their agencies’ science agendas online, largely to the public.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research is clearly a leader in the field. Government departments in Canada are also beginning to explore the opportunities and pitfalls of Web 2.0, particularly given official language considerations.

Parks Canada is getting information to and consulting their clients using Facebook and Twitter. With strong support from their deputy minister, Natural Resources Canada  is one of the first government agencies that has learned to use social media for communicating within the department: internal tools like “NRTube”, wikis and a Twitter feed have generated considerable use without any apparent problems for the bureaucracy. 

What struck several conference attendees  is that, at this stage, external use of social media in government appears to be predominantly focused on getting out official departmental messages, and not yet on encouraging civil servants to engage in discussion and communication with their peers or the public. What a missed opportunity.

WikignomeAmong the presenters at the session was a woman who described herself as the senior “wikignome” at Natural Resources Canada (a wikignome is someone who make “useful incremental edits” to collective encyclopedia Wikipedia). That prompted moderator Peter Calamai, a venerable Canadian science journalism icon and co-founder of the almost 40-year-old CSWA, to wonder out loud what a collective of wikignomes might look like.

On the spot he offered a yet-to-be-determined fabulous prize to the person who came up with the best definition. The results were announced during the CSWA Science in Society Awards Banquet held in the Museum’s eponymous locomotive hall.

A “garden of wikignomes’ drew laughter. Other suggestions included: “a Gee-gnome,” “a gnomenculture,” and “a gnowledge.” The winner was declared to be “a gnomencluster” and CSWA president Kathryn O’Hara suggested that a new CSWA tradition, the annual Science Communication Definition Contest, had been born.

Dr. Alex Bielak leads the knowledge translation and brokering activities of Environment Canada’s Science and Technology Liaison Division, and stepped down a year ago after a long stint as Board Member of the Canadian Science  Writers’ Association.